COTABATO CITY, Philippines – About 6,000 troops from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were present in Cotabato City to support and keep watch of the Bangsamoro plebiscite on Monday, January 21.
Armed Forces of the Philippines 6th Infantry Division commander Major General Cirilito Sobejana said some 5,000 members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), the armed unit of the MILF, made their way into the city as early as Sunday, the day before voting.
There was no prior coordination with security forces for the arrival of the BIAF troops, Sobejana said, and he was only alerted by ground forces about it.
Sobejana said BIAF chief of staff Sammy Gambar Al-Mansoor made efforts to make some of the BIAF troops withdraw from the area, but only 2,000 of them did on Sunday, January 20. By Monday, though, their number increased to 6,000.
Despite this, Sobejana said the BIAF presence in Cotabato City was not taken as a threat.
“We treated their arrival here as ordinary citizens, for as long as they were not in uniform and were not bearing arms,” Sobejana told reporters in a press briefing Monday evening.
The debate over the ratification of the Bangsamoro Law has fuelled tensions in Cotabato City.
It’s popular mayor, Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, is openly against the inclusion of Cotabato City in the proposed Bangsaoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
As she cast her vote at the Cotabato City Institute, she claimed the presence of MILF members in the city had intimidated voters.
But Sobejana said no violent incidents took place and that the MILF members were not hostile. The most they were involved in, he said, were verbal clashes with voters who did not support the Bangsamoro Organic Law.
“They were not wearing uniform, they were unarmed, and some were wearing identification cards so they were not hostile. They were identifying themselves. Hindi po sila nananakot (They were not intimidating anyone),” Sobejana said.
Sobejana added the military sought to allay the concerns of voters by beefing up security forces in the city.
“We were able to protect the democratic space and we were able to let democracy work,” he said.
Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) elections chief Rey Sumalipao said no election-related violence were reported in Cotabato City and the rest of the participating areas.
“We have relayed to everyone that we have a peaceful elections in the entire ARMM, Isabela City, and, except for some skirmishes in Cotabato City, it was generally still peaceful and we had a successful conduct of the plebiscite,” he said. – Rappler.com